We are excited to share our inspirational conversation with Erika Cuellar and Richard Garcia the Co-Founders of Alma’s Backyard Farms. In today’s episode, we discuss the origins of Alma’s Backyard Farms. The journey that brought Richard and Erika to Compton and to begin their nonprofit organization. What fuels them to do this work and the life lessons learned in the process of creating this amazing organization that exists to reclaim the lives of formerly incarcerated people.
Almas Backyard Farm re-purposes urban land into productive urban farm plots and re-imagine disenfranchised communities in Los Angeles as a hub for transformation. Co-founder, Erika Cuellar is an LA native and first-generation Mexican-American. Growing up in Watts, Erika witnessed how her community has been fraught with challenges in education and food insecurity. Erika’s co-founder is Richard Garcia whose passion to grow food comes from a long line of Filipino farmers. Before launching Alma Backyard Farms, Richard initiated garden programs for schools and restaurants.
A few highlights from our conversation:
Charity Matters: Tell us about the name of your organization? And who is Alma?
Richard Garcia: There is a lot in a name. Alma in Spanish means soul. Food is what we grow. Our programming and services are intended to nourish the soul. That being community, a place to thrive. kinship connection that’s why we chose Alma’s Backyard Garden because Alma is also the street where we first started our first backyard garden.
Charity Matters: Tell us More about how you began Alma’s Backyard Gardens?
Erika Cuellar: I went on to work at Homegirl Cafe, shortly after my senior year of college. And so, Richard had come back to Homegirl Cafe to work with us and help develop a few different components of the training program, including a gardening aspect.
So we started an experiment, the idea of the entire food process of growing, preparing, and serving and so a lot of the women (previously incarcerated) that we were working with had never grown vegetables or had much exposure to what growing food is like. It was during that work at Homegirl Cafe, that the fire was was was was ignited in our hearts to really pursue to pursue Alma.
And so we really started looking at backyards, like, how can we utilize underutilized space? How can we take backyards that are not being maximized in Los Angeles, and create these farms? With the goal to grow foods to really nourish people and provide opportunities for folks who are we serving. The first backyard that we had installed was on Alma Avenue. That’s Richard’s house, which still remains a backyard farm.
Charity Matters: What fuels you to do this work? Your work is physically demanding as farmers and running A nonprofit, How do you keep going when it’s hard?
Erika Cuellar: Good sleep, a good spiritual life, good prayer. And eating well, like, I like those three things. And exercise four things that keep us grounded and going.
Richard Garcia: There is a discipline with love, where you have to choose it every day. So it may not always feel wonderful. But there is a edify, deeper, an edifying feeling of knowing that the choice to love happens. Someone wants to describe farming is you know, picking up picking things up, and putting things down and that sometimes feels like the whole day.
Yeah, you’re picking things up putting things down, you’re loading, you’re offloading. The other day someone picked up kale and they’re preparing this kale for a kitchen that serves homeless folks. And then she looked around and she said to me, “I could see you love what you do.” And I thought that was one of the nicest compliments. There is this meticulousness about how we orchestrate the space because our intention is for people to really have a sense of presence in the space. So that is also fuel.
Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?
Richard Garcia: I think, you know, there’s a life lesson, it’s that God works through the challenges, not apart from it, not a distance from it, but through them. And so, I’m anticipating that there are challenges ahead. And, and I think, growing to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, has been one of the lessons that I’ve learned to appreciate.
Erika Cuellar: The first word that came to mind when you said life lessons was the importance of honesty. To live a life that is honest. I think there are many life lessons. But if you know we talk about what fuels and what motivates and what gets you going every day, and it’s that reminder to choose to be chosen and to choose love.
I guess it’s more than the lesson…. I think the lesson lies in embracing and accepting honesty. Being honest and all of your relationships and, as a business as a nonprofit business being honest in your transactions in stewardship. So I think that’s at the core of the values and lessons that I’ve learned. It is instrumental to really be able to live a life, not just for myself, but for others.
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